Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty

A tester, is what my father-in-law would call this sort of thing.

Anyone who's read more than a single post on this blog will know that I'm a confirmed crank about some things: growing your own food, using less oil, buying locally produced and manufactured goods, community engagement, etc. etc. Now that I've read Jeffrey Sachs' seriously well researched The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, for the book club, I'm wondering which of my cherished crankinesses I've got wrong.

Basically, Sachs argues that the wealthy countries have to help the poorest countries get onto what he calls the ladder of economic progress. He focuses on countries caught in the poverty trap, whose citizens aren't able to earn enough or grow enough to feed themselves, whose soils are being destroyed by desperate farming, whose infrastructure is decaying, and which cannot do anything to reach outside their borders as economic agents. Sachs advocates higher taxes on very rich individuals (maybe a 5% dedicated surtax on everyone earning over $500,000 USD), single-window service (likely through the UN) rather than all the currently involved groups, buckets of public support along with private investment.

I'm on board with all this, and I don't think any of this is new. The new bit is simply the depth of involvement Sachs has had over the years with countries going through enormous challenges - Bolivia's hyperinflation, Poland's emerging from Communism, India's technological revolution - that grounds and informs his analysis.

But there's a significant twist, for me at least. Sachs argues forcefully that the surest way for an extremely poor nation to become less poor is to become an exporter. In other words, if I'm genuinely supportive of countries like Ghana, Burkina Faso, and the rest, then I need to try to buy things exported all the way around the globe from those countries. Sure, I can keep growing my own potatoes (which are coming well, btw, unlike the beets), and I can avoid cheap plastic crap, but ... when I need to buy stuff, I need to make sure that some of it was made far away, albeit in particular ways and in particular countries.

The galling bit is that I've been comfortable claiming that a big chunk of the fair-trade market is no more than a feel-good cloak over consumerist materialism - not that different from buying a half-ton of made-in-China plastic storage bins, except that you get to feel good about wasting your money on something whose import burned a whole lot of fuel.

Sachs says that these two things are enormously different. That if we in the wealthy countries insist on shopping local, growing our own food, and reducing consumption patterns, the poorest countries will never escape the depths of poverty. That I'm the selfish one, buying locally and not buying things made by people far away. That mine is the civilization that's doomed to be overrun by the globalizers - hopefully by what he calls "Enlightened Globalization," but the jury's out on whether that'll be the path globalization takes.

No veggies ripe in my garden these days, except new potatoes, so maybe I'll go pick up something from far away for dinner tonight....


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